There was always a danger, lurking since the premiere, that Castle Rock would get bogged down in recreating an auteur’s mythology or stylistic flourishes rather than developing its own world and its own characters. But I assumed it would at least be Stephen King’s mythology and Stephen King’s stylistic flourishes. Instead, Castle Rock has gone full American Horror Story. “Past Perfect” (directed by Ana Lily Amirpour) is beautifully shot, with well-constructed action scenes, powerful sound design, and more than one good jump scare. It’s also disappointingly empty and, even before the dismemberments, disjointed.

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We all knew Professor Gordon NoLastName’s sudden fascination with Dale Lacy’s paintings boded ill for him, his wife, and anyone who set foot in their new home. But I never expected the series to dispatch Dr. and Mrs. NoLastName (Mark Harelik, Lauren Bowles) so fast, with such pathetic attention to narrative logic, or to so little purpose.

Who buys a house without inspecting the basement? No one, that’s who. What sneaky cheaters go to a B&B for privacy? No one, that’s who. What murders drags his victims downstairs to dismember them in the foyer, in full view of the unlocked door with its flanking windows? No one, that’s who. Who, having already been walked in on as they tidy up after a double murder, would leave their front door unlocked while they’re out dumping the bodies? No one, that’s who. Who cares about the sudden opening of The Castle Rock Historic Bed And Breakfast, or about its just-as-sudden demise? No one, maybe not even the writers. (“Past Perfect” is credited to Mark Lafferty, but losing sight of what matters is a recurrent problem on Castle Rock.)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the opening spectacle of “Past Perfect,” or with the story of Gordon and Lilith, their marriage already strained by infidelity, trying to make a new start in a new town with a new career. It’s even fun to watch their plan come together, bit by gruesome bit, as they work together to transform the former Lacy home into a bed and breakfast that specializes in rehashing the lurid history of Castle Rock. There’s humor as well as tension in the scene where they greet their first guests, only to discover they’re being sought out for their obscurity, not their inn’s unique appeal. And the moment when their guests’ moans of passion become moans of agony is haunting.

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But who cares? Despite all the blood splashed around, there’s no meat to this plot. Maybe the two remaining episodes will build on the story of these two out-of-staters who tried to exploit Castle Rock’s grisly history and found themselves swallowed up by it instead. But Castle Rock has a bad habit of introducing characters, using them up, then dispatching them with barely a backward glance, as shown by “Past Perfect”’s silent shot of Odin dead on the forest floor.

That’s not to say the story of the hoteliers from away (from away: where you’re from if you weren’t born in Maine) completely fails to reinforce Castle Rock’s larger story. Their recurring conversations hammer home the allure of ignoring ugly truths, and the danger of doing so. “Can’t we just say it never happened?” Lilith (named for the first time in this episode, shortly before her death) asks her husband, and Gordon tells her, “I’m trying.” Even in his fantasy confrontation with Lilith’s lover, Gordon ruminates on the comfort in forgetting.

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But we can’t forget what we never knew. Castle Rock cares so little about its victims, it doesn’t bother to name the soon-to-be-slaughtered guests, or to give its newest (and most recently deceased) residents last names. That’s symptomatic of an ongoing problem, where characters who aren’t really characters deliver chunks of exposition or forward the plot.

So mechanical are the uses of these stand-ins for actual characters, they’re not even worthy of names, no matter how prominently they appear. Frances Conroy’s character was known as “Mrs. Lacy” for an uncomfortable couple of episodes; her character attributes could be summed up as “is blind, is widowed.” Aaron Staton’s character, the pastor who now heads what was Matthew Deaver’s church, exists only to convey information to Henry, and he only warrants a name in this episode (his fourth appearance!) because he appears on the phone, not in person. Bill Skarsgård’s character is known only as “The Kid,” though he hasn’t been a kid for a long, long time (if ever), and it’s long past time for him to stop looming around looking forbidding and start doing something. Almost anything, really. Warden Dale Lacy’s replacement went unnamed for some time—and heyyyyyyyy, what’s happening at Shawshank, anyhow? Remember Shawshank? I wonder what’s going on at Shawshank.

By setting itself in Stephen King’s universe instead of establishing its own, Castle Rock is drawing on the audience’s affection and appetite for all things King.In that way, it’s not too different from Gordon and Lilith’s ghoulish B&B, or Jackie’s imagined city-wide “murder theme park.” It’s constantly in danger or reducing its stories, its characters, its deep background, to Easter eggs and sight gags as shallow as the B&B’s mannequin with a (historically inaccurate) axe in its head.

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Henry Deaver, who first appeared in Castle Rock’s universe with fierce curiosity and passionate opinions, has been reduced to a series of reactions. He’s pushed from moment to moment, danger to danger, by other people’s actions, and especially by their violence. André Holland gives everything Henry does an air of wary, weary contemplation, but even he can’t keep his character’s lack of agency from growing tedious. Henry’s needs and hopes should sustain this season, but it’s hard to be compelled by the inner life of a character who is himself buffeted from scene to scene by the whims of other people.

Even Henry’s speculation about The Kid is a reaction. When Henry tells Molly “Everywhere he goes, people die,” he’s echoing the sentiment of a Castle Rock police officer (and his former classmate’s mother), who berated him earlier for drawing down disaster: “You’re like a fucking lightning rod.” But she’s wrong. A lightning rod concentrates and captures a destructive force. Whatever The Kid does, that’s not it. Maybe he’s more like a weather vane, swinging where the wind takes him.

The long, slow build of tension as Molly and The Kid talk in her childhood home is well-crafted, and the score—that ominous thrum that sounds almost alive—adds to the intensity. But considering her own unbelievable gifts, it seems unlikely Molly requires this much persuasion to believe The Kid knows all about her history… and the last line, “That’s where you died,” is as much a cue for an eyeroll as it is for a gasp. This show spouts a lot of spooky talk about people coming back from the dead, but—except for Ruth’s excursions to the past, where she sees the now-dead living their lives—we ain’t seen it yet.

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In its first season, Castle Rock is all about the temptation to forget things that hurt us, and paradoxically about the damage we do when we repress those memories—or have them taken from us. This episode pays lip service to those themes. But in “Past Perfect,” Castle Rock is in danger of forgetting what’s important.

Stray observations

  • How thoroughly has Castle Rock lost its grasp of what’s important to the series? At the time of this writing, the only promotional photos for “Past Perfect” available on Hulu’s press site are of Gordon, Lilith, and police officer Dana Reese (Jayne Atkinson).
  • Gordon and Lilith are in and out of Castle Rock so fast, they barely leave a mark—except the stab wound on Henry’s torso. Given Castle Rock’s meanderings through time, I have to wonder if that’s the same scar described on his missing poster from 1991.
  • For several weeks now, I’ve been wondering if Castle Rock will play better as a bingeable series, once all its episodes are available. It has too many hiccups and lapses of attention to be entirely successful as a weekly program. But maybe it needs to be knocked back shot by shot, episode by episode, in a night or two of excitement, instead of drawn out over a couple of months.

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